The harrowing journey along a precarious mountain highway taken by OLE Nepal’s team of trainers and technical staff to reach program schools in Solukhumbu.
“Phaplu airport is closed for upgradation. All flights are now landing on a makeshift landing strip in Kangel, a couple of hours from Phaplu”. The news welcomed me. After having flown twice to Phaplu within the last year, the adrenaline- or rather the thrill- associated with landing on a strip consisting of loose gravel has notably decreased. A makeshift airport. Landing there should be quite an experience.
Our team was to conduct a refresher training, and provide technical support to five schools located in the eastern district of Solukhumbu. Anxious to finish our work there before the monsoons hit, we were all mentally prepared to fly to Kangel.
But our resolve alone, wasn’t enough. Our flight was to be on Sunday, and two days before the flight, that is, on Friday, we got word that throughout the week all flights to Kangel had been cancelled due to impassable crosswinds.
Now, I am not entirely new to the difficulties associated with traveling via air to such locations. My previous two endeavours to Phaplu have taught me that even waiting at Kathmandu’s domestic airport for hours on end does not guarantee take-off. So, in order to be ‘on top of the situation’ and to not let uncertainty dictate our training’s fixture, we decided to take the longer and more taxing land route.
A quick search on Google didn’t bring up much information about the route. Seldom have bloggers travelled that route. One site I managed to find, tried to give me an extremely far fetched idea that at a decent speed, one could reach Salleri within 4 hours. Unconvinced I googled on, and finally came upon something more credible. 18 hours.
I was looking for the thrill of landing at a makeshift airport. It sure would’ve given me a lot of bragging rights whenever conversations turned to air travel. Sure, this 18 hour trip would be something worth mentioning, but it packed more of a thrill than I was looking for. Nonetheless, I was up for it. It was, but a small hurdle.
The very next day, at around 7.30 in the morning, we set off. The Tata Sumo we were bundled within was a sturdy 4 wheel drive capable machine. Soon, we were cruising along black topped roads, exiting Kathmandu valley. About 15 minutes into the ride, the driver stopped the vehicle around Suryabinayak with the intention of buying a few kilos of plastic sheets. He conferred that apart from just driving passengers up to Salleri, he sometimes takes whatever little he can, to sell, to supplement his income. Shortly after loading on the freshly purchased plastic sheets, we were back on our way.
Within two hours, we had reached Nepalthok. The journey till there was surprisingly smooth. And besides, with all of us discussing enthusiastically about our soon to launch program in Bajhang, we had totally lost track of time. Our driver slowed the jeep to a stop in front of an eatery, and we stepped out to have an early lunch as we had a long way to go, and weren’t entirely sure about the frequency of upcoming establishments that offered food. Besides, if we had waited any longer, my stomach’s rumbling would’ve surely surpassed that of the jeep’s engine.
It didn’t take long for us to wolf down our portions of rice and daal. It didn’t take too long for second helpings to disappear either. And once they did, we were back on the road. Before long, we were out of the smoothness that blacktopped roads provided, and had entered the bumpiness of a roughly cut up road. It took a lot of strength just to keep myself from hitting the side of the jeep as it swayed. Along with the rocky-ness, the heat too had greatly increased. Perspiration had started to drip down the sides of my cheek, and I had to risk leaving the hold of the seat in front, to swipe a dab at drops of sweat every now and then. As we continued to travel on, it felt as though the heat too, was steadily increasing. The open windows provided little respite in terms of wind, as the jeep barely managed to pick up speed before it had to be slowed down again.
Then, after a rather sharp turn, we started climbing steeply, on a road that appeared to be covered by a 2 foot deep layer of dust. Immediately, an enormous cloud of dust flew up around us, entering the jeep and threatening to choke us. Instinctively, the driver rolled up his window, and almost immediately, we followed suit by rolling up our respective windows. I turned to look back at the path we were climbing, but could see nothing but a dense cloud of dust following us. This path was of sorts that I had never seen before. It was narrow enough for only one vehicle to comfortably travel on, but had corners every now and then that were wide enough for two vehicles to squeeze by. It offered a sharp fall on one side, and that ever-present 2 foot layer of dust was everywhere. Five minutes into this path, it started to get unbearably hot in the jeep. With the windows rolled up, there was no way for all the stuffy air to ventilate properly.
Another five minutes, and we were all drenched in our own sweat. When the heat was finally reaching an unbearable degree, the driver suddenly made the jeep hug a corner tightly, and shut off his engine. As though he had seen through our puzzlement at stopping at a place where just stepping off the jeep would mean depressing into the thick layer of dust, he pointed into the distance. I looked towards where he was pointing, but could not understand what he had intended to convey. Then, quite a distance away, i saw a cloud of dust rising, and it dawned on me. There was another vehicle coming from the other direction, and this corner was probably one of the few places that allowed two vehicles to pass. The vehicle appeared to be quite a distance away, and whilst we waited, I noticed our stillness had caused the continual cloud of dust enveloping us to vanish. Quite enthusiastically, I rolled down the window and let the hot air flow out, and immediately felt more at ease.
The dusty path continued for another half hour or so. We passed a rather gutsy biker, who despite all that the terrain was throwing his way, was ably wading through the thick dust. He hadn’t bothered to put on a helmet, and when we passed him, his yellow shirt got an entire shade darker, and his mustache, now covered by a thick layer of dust, heavier. Then, we entered more durable roads. Still not entirely void of dust, but more bearable.
A couple of more hours passed on this road, with us rocking front and back, side to side. We stopped at a small town to buy a few bottles of water, and were back on our way. We shuffled our seating arrangement then. I was seated in the middle this time, and though I had tried devotedly earlier to not let the vehicle shake me too much, keeping in mind the comfort of the others, I couldn’t find the strength to do so any more. Mentally and physically exhausted, we rode on. Around 5, we reached Ghurmi, and stopped to get some tea. The quiet little town, owned almost entirely by a single person, provided much to see. But too exhausted, we just waited patiently for our tea, and wolfed down a few packs of biscuits.
The biscuits and tea vanished too quick, and before we had time to properly stretch our sore muscles, the journey continued. The plan was to stop at Ramailo Danda in Okhaldhunga for the night. Daylight was long gone, and a light drizzle had started, when we finally rolled into our destination.
By the time we had found a place to spend the night, and were seated to start our dinner, the rain was pouring down hard. Our driver was concerned as the roads we now had to travel were highly seasonal, and became almost impassable when wet. About 4 trucks that were also aiming for Salleri, had stopped in Ramailo danda for the night, so we drew up a plan to leave early next morning before the trucks set out, so that even if we did get stuck somewhere, the truckers would have to help us out to move ahead themselves. Also, since these heavy lifters molded the wet clay like soil of the roads ahead, and made it difficult for other vehicles to ply, it would be a smarter option to leave before them..
The rooms we got weren’t the most comfortable. The beds were basically planks of wood covered by thin cloths. But my exhaustion got the better of me, and I don’t know about the others, but I slept like a log.
Early the next morning we were up and ready to leave. Whether it was due to exhaustion, or because of the darkness when we arrived, I had failed to notice the views that Ramailo Danda had to offer. A short 5 minute walk around the village, helped me notice the greenery and landscape views offered. Then, we were back in the jeep, rumbling along.
For the next 2 hours, we climbed steadily through areas that amazingly still managed to offer thick clouds of dust despite the showers the previous night. But compared to the day before, the temperature had greatly dropped, owing to the fact that we had gained considerable altitude. We came across a jeep that was heading towards Kathmandu from Salleri, and the drivers stopped for a minute to talk about the condition of the roads that lay ahead on both sides. On the other jeep, I noticed a tourist sitting out on the bed, or -as i like to call it- the pick-upy area. Covered from head to toe by a thick layer of dust, he gave me a big smile, probably not realizing that it was his ignorance related to his appearance that had amazed me and brought on my stupefied expression. I smiled back. He’d probably have a fit whenever he managed to catch his reflection.
Another hour of climbing, and we had reached Patale. This was the highest point of our journey and offered amazing views of Mt Everest, and other famous peaks housed by Solukhumbu. Then, we started descending, and the dry dusty roads quickly gave away to slushy clay roads. The driver continually switched the jeep to 4 wheel drive and then back to 2. We were moving along slowly then. The jeep was dancing from side to side, but the driver was experienced when it comes to these roads. It was a tame dance. At one point though, being the young male that he is, he averted his eyes from the road to a couple of attractive highland lasses who were walking, and the jeep slipped and slided and did a 180. He slammed into the brakes, gave us a sheepish, apologetic smile, and slowly but carefully this time, turned the jeep and started moving again. This had happened just as we were discussing the driver’s focus and dexterity, so instead of being worried, we blew it off in a few guffaws.
An hour or so into descending, we stopped at Bel Danda for brunch. A quick cup of tea, followed by enormous platefuls of Solukhumbu’s famous potatoes, and we were back to slipping and sliding. After another hour or so, once we had crossed Kerung, we drew to a stop. In front of us, a jeep trying to make its way to Kathmandu was stuck and there was a whole convoy of jeeps behind it. All the drivers were out and about. Some were bringing in planks of wood from here and there to help that jeep and the others behind it cross the portion. Others were going at the soil with shovels and throwing rocks here and there. Within 15 minutes they deemed the path travel worthy and had got the originally stuck jeep out and on it’s way. Since our driver was pretty popular amongst the others, we got to use the planks next, and we sailed across safely.
More slipping and sliding. When we finally reached Garma around 11, I knew we were close. My legs started yearning for the freedom it had been denied for 2 days. Within half an hour, we had reached Salleri, where we dropped off all our training related stationary so that it’d be easy for us to carry it up to the training center the next day.
Then for the final stretch! Phaplu! Shangri-La Hotel! From there, all it took was a 10 minute ride. After sharing a few jokes and handshakes, we parted with the driver, and entered Shangri-La. At last, after facing the brunt of various terrains, and sitting cooped up in that jeep for over a day and a half, we had reached our destination. But there was a still a lot to do that day. We needed to draw up a plan for the next day’s training, and shower off all the dust and grime that two days on the road had enveloped us with. However, it was straight to bed that we went as the result of a unanimous decision that we’d all feel better after a short nap.
The road to Phaplu was an enthralling experience. Now, when I think back about it, I am glad I was a part of the trip. The road offered more thrill than I had originally looked for. And yet, like when you get two pieces of cake while expecting just one, it instilled great excitement within me.